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FOIA reform re-emerges in the house

February 7, 2017

Article courtesy of MIRS News Service

Some 70 House members from both parties crammed into the Speaker’s Library Wednesday afternoon to announce re-introduction of the House’s FOIA reform package, coasting in on a presumed mandate from the 2016 election for a more transparent government.

“On the campaign trail as many of us traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles across the state, we heard our constituents loud and clear: They want more accountability from their representatives and from their elected officials in government,” said House Speaker Tom LEONARD (R-DeWitt). “I can think of no better way to do that than to bring more transparency so that they have more information about what we do.”

The so-called LORA bills, standing for Legislative Open Records Act, is a 10-bill package that would remove exemptions for the legislation and the executive office from the state’s FOIA law. The package, spearheaded last session by former Rep. Ed MCBROOM and Rep. Jeremy MOSS (D-Southfield), also provides a framework for protecting constituent information and a non-partisan Legislative Council Administrator to deal with request conflicts. 

Leading the effort is Speaker Pro Tem Lee CHATFIELD (R-Levering) and Moss. 

An 11th bill was added to the package this year. Rep. Klint KESTO’s bill (R-Commerce Twp.) addressed a concern that requesters could be exposed to a lawsuit by public bodies. 

Minority Leader Sam SINGH (D-East Lansing) suggested the LORA legislation would not be viewed by the Democratic Caucus as a crowning achievement of transparency in government, but rather as a first step toward additional “ethical standards.” Other issues lobbied by Singh included putting a wedge in the revolving door for termed-out legislators who land lobbyist gigs. 

“Those kind of ethical standards we have all across the country, I’d like to see those right here in Michigan,” Singh said. “And the key one of those elements was openness in the Freedom of Information Act.” 

Michigan, being one of two states whose legislature and executive office are not subject to FOIA has become a familiar refrain heard on the House side of the Capitol, but it doesn’t seem to be ringing across the Rotunda in the Senate. 

Majority Leader Arlan MEEKHOF (R-West Olive) said today he would “take a look” at the House’s proposal, but his stance on the issue has been decidedly more moderated than that of his House colleagues. Last year’s FOIA legislation was relegated to the Government Operations Committee — better known as the gentleman’s way to kill legislation — over concerns about constituent privacy. Meekhof has continued to stand by that concern. 

Earlier this week Meekhof seemed opposed to public access to legislators’ email during his interview on the MIRS Monday Podcast. Meekhof suggested imbalanced coverage of information could weaken legislators’ position in negotiation on tough issues. 

“I’m discussing an idea with the Governor with something via email that I know he’s going to say no to, but I want to work some sort of deal and I’ve made some offer that I know my constituents don’t think is the right thing or maybe all of my constituents don’t think is the right thing, but it’s a position of negotiation . . . and I guess you guys would only print the one piece that would not be favorable to me,” Meekhof said.  Leonard said he would continue to work with Meekhof regarding concerns over constituent privacy and that he believes the early introduction of the bill gives the Senate more time to collaborate. 

Another carry-over concern from last session is that caucus documents and legislators’ private avenues of communication are protected from FOIA, potentially providing legislators and staff broad pathways to conceal information that is otherwise public in nature. Moss said that last session he and McBroom thought the House rules should be amended to require public business to be conducted using public resources. 

Chatfield said that he believes this legislation is a “necessary step that establishes the framework to have that conversation.”

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